Apparently David Cameron was on Radio 4 this morning telling the UK how much he cares about ‘the hardworking people’. At first glance, that seems fine, but it stands a poke. First, as soon as you say something like this, you are probably also saying (especially if you’re a Tory), by implication that there are people who are not hardworking and you aren’t in favour of them. You are also saying that hardworking is the only measure of a person. Let’s take that further.
A hardworking person is putting in long hours, pretty much by definition. They probably live to work, rather than working to live. But there’s no call to quality here, only to look busy. A hardworking person may have meticulously re-ordered the stationary cupboard today. They might spend hours diligently folding socks in the best possible way. They might spend several extra hours in the office every day, appearing to be very busy, afraid they will lose their job if they don’t appear to be working long hours, and working hard, but not actually doing anything useful. What they will be doing is reducing their own quality of life, having a terrible work-life balance, and neglecting other aspects of being human.
Hard work and long hours happily contributes to a process of making things we neither need nor can afford and then convincing each other to pay for them anyway. This is one of the things that underpins the inherent instability and unsustainability of our culture. Working long, hard hours contributes to the rising epidemic of stress, anxiety and depression related illness, which in turn costs a lot of working hours every year and a lot of time spent on doctors and drugs. That is not a win in any sense. Long, hard hours at work undermine family life, means parents have less chance to be involved in bringing up their own children, and puts an obscene amount of pressure on our planet. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is apparently the pattern our Prime Minister is cheering about. Never mind that most of his overpaid, over-privileged, under-worked friends have probably never done the kinds of things we’re talking about here.
As a Druid, I care about nature. I see human beings as part of nature, and I see what is natural continually being overruled by this pressure to be good little producers, forever busy selling and consuming. Why are we so obsessed with creating and wasting far more than any of us need? Because idiots stand up in public and suggest there is a moral high ground to working yourself to death for the sake of ten more sales of a thing that is destined to sit in a garage and gather dust, or go into the bin barely used. Of course the more caught up we are in frantically working longer and harder to be good little citizens, the less time we have to think about moral and ethical issues, the less energy we have for questioning governments. What a strange coincidence!
Let’s not cheer over people working twelve hour days, and six and seven day weeks. Let’s gently encourage them to live, and facilitate their doing so. Let’s not demand the quickest, cheapest, least humane option at every turn.
I could work really hard today. I could write thousands and thousands of words until my hands are in agony and my mind is in meltdown. I might even be able to sell it to someone. And then I would have contributed to the great pile of ill-conceived, throw away reading material in the world. Whoopee. Forgive me if I don’t think that’s clever. Or I can move slowly, take the time to think. Which project is most important and relevant? Which topic most needs airing? Where can I say something profound, or something that will improve peoples’ days by making them smile?
From a purely economic perspective, ten thousand words of any pap I can think of, will not make me the next Neil Gaiman, or the next JK Rowling. Quality matters. Better to work lightly and get things right than expend a lot of energy flapping, flailing and messing things up. You can work very hard and end up with total rubbish. You can also work smart, at the right speed, with care and integrity. Maybe it doesn’t look as though quite as much is getting done, but getting it right the first time should mean going home early, not three hours of overtime. We’re too collectively focused on the idea that time is money, and that working – any work, no matter what it achieves or ruins – is morally superior to no work. Remember the guys checking train lines for dangerous faults, overpressured, with not enough time to do the job? Someone died as a consequence of people being asked to work too hard, and being unable to do the job as a consequence. This is not the right way to do things.
In nature, most things do only what is needful. The rest of the time, they rest, play, sunbathe, groom, sing, socialise. Humans are not very natural. I’m not advocating an ethic of total laziness here, I work, and I work most days, but I do not believe in work for the sake of it, and I do not think anyone should be martyring themselves for the cult of overtime and the gods of GDP.